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Carroll County Times

Legal Matters: Civil actions generally must be filed within five years

A Carroll County landowner granted permission several years ago to a telecommunications company to install television cable across her property. She and a company representative signed a written contract in which she agreed to allow use of the land and the company agreed to pay for the access.

The property owner received a copy of the contract. The company installed the cable across the front of her property. And then, nothing.

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Five years went by. The property owner reports that she never received payment from the company. But she did not take action earlier to seek payment. Can she enforce the contract now and require the subsidiary to pay for the land access it has been using? If the company refuses to pay, can she file suit to collect?

Answer: a qualified maybe.

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The general rule in Maryland is that a civil action at law must be filed within three years of the date it accrues, unless some other provision of the Maryland Code establishes a different period of time during which the action must be commenced.

The landowner might try to file suit for breach of contract, alleging that the company breached the contract by breaking its promise to compensate her for use of her land.

Could she do that, despite the passage of time that puts the contract outside the Maryland Code general rule? It would be difficult, because even if the contract has a provision on what will happen if either party fails to live up to the agreement, the landowner would have to overcome the problem of a delay longer than three years.

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If the contract does not have a provision for default, there may be some other answer that a careful reading of the document would show. Parties may write different terms into a contract than the general rules set forth in law. The contract could provide, for example, that compensation payments were to begin four years after installation of the cable.

If the contract does not provide for a delay in the starting date for payments, the landowner might argue that a valid contract requires — in legal terms — an offer, acceptance and consideration.

The cable company offered her payment for the use of her land. She accepted by allowing the use. But the contract may fail because of the absence of consideration, that is, "an exchange of something of value" between the parties.

If the contract was never valid, the landowner could sue with the argument that the company is trespassing on her property. "Black's Law Dictionary" defines trespass as, "an unlawful act committed against the person or property of another, especially wrongful entry on another's real property."

Entry does not have to mean walking across the property. It could be placing something on the site. The owner could argue that her permission to lay cable was contingent on payment, which was not made, and therefore the cable is an ongoing wrongful entry.

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Would the argument fly? That would depend on how a judge would see it.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or denglelaw@gmail.com. Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.




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